Responding to RFPs: How to Win Competitions for New Business

  • May 13, 2014
  • Janet Ellen Raasch

Law firms are increasingly being asked to vie for new business – especially high-value business – by competing against other firms in a sort of “beauty contest”, where two or more firms compete against each other to represent the prospective client as its outside counsel.

Here are five ways lawyers and law firms can improve their odds of successfully responding to requests for proposals and winning high-stakes new-business competitions.

1. Understand the Prospect’s Goals and Challenges

“All too often, proposals and interviews are boring recitations of a law firm’s qualifications,” says Ann Lee Gibson, PhD, who consults law firms on new-business competitions, sales presentations and competitive intelligence. “It shouldn’t be just about you, but about the prospect’s unique goals and challenges and how your firm and service team will help the prospect meet these goals and challenges.

“The value of this kind of inside knowledge is why incumbents always have a huge advantage – unless the client is really disappointed or angry with them for some reason.”

Read the RFP carefully. What does it tell you about the prospective client’s goals, selection criteria, terms, language, style and culture?

“Then, supplement this information with additional research on the prospect and its industry—primary research, using the firm’s internal resources; secondary research, using outside resources like databases, websites and web searches; and human research, talking to people who possess special knowledge of the client, its industry and your competitors,” says Gibson.

Before creating and submitting a proposal, the team leader should request an interview with the prospect to start building a relationship, and to learn more about the client’s needs and the particular engagement for which they are seeking outside counsel.

“Firms that won’t meet with you to discuss an RFP probably are signaling that the competition is a sham – and not worth your time and effort,” she says.

2. Propose Real Solutions

“Clients want to learn much more from your proposal than your qualifications,” says Gibson. “They want to see how your law firm can (1) help them take advantage of opportunities to reach their goals and (2) overcome the barriers and challenges that stand between them and their goals.

“This is one area in which you are going to have to give to get, by which I mean give useful advice or insights in order to get the business,” says Gibson.

A good proposal will include a specific legal strategy, staffing plan, service plan and pricing plan – all in direct response to the prospect’s unique goals and challenges. Vague generalizations neither persuade nor sell.

“The proposal that is read first is the proposal that is remembered best, especially in a competition with many participants,” says Gibson. “Which proposals get read first? When we ask in-house counsel this question, they answer: ‘The short ones and the pretty ones.’ A proposal is a marketing document; make sure it looks and reads like one.”

3. Focus on the Executive Summary

The executive summary is the only part of a proposal that you can be sure the prospect will read. An executive summary should typically be two to three pages long.

“This valuable real estate should not be wasted on the storied history of your law firm and the now-deceased men who founded it,” says Gibson. “It should not be about your qualifications. Instead, it should include a well-written summary of the best points made in your legal strategy, staffing plan, service plan and pricing plan sections.”

4. Treat the Interview as a Two-Way Conversation

The decision-making process in a high-stakes new-business competition all too often boils down to a “gut feeling” about the participants, whether it be positive or negative. The interview itself is where this reaction will make itself felt.

“Choose a team leader who has the right expertise, is available to do the work and can establish rapport with this client,” says Gibson. “‘Matching and mirroring’ the client’s team—in age, gender, personality, and even dress and body language—is very important. Even casual pre-interview conversation can impress or irreparably turn off a client.”

The interview should be a two-way conversation. “It should not be a deposition by the client,” says Gibson. “It should not be a filibuster by your firm. It should be a 50/50 dialogue between your lawyers and the client about the client’s issues—a dialogue that clearly and positively demonstrates how you would perform as a trusted legal adviser.”

A successful interview will be preceded by rehearsal, critique and fine-tuning, with the input of someone who understands the marketing process.

5. Institute a Systematic Debriefing Process

“Win or lose, it is essential that you debrief the client as soon as possible after the competition concludes to find out why the winner won and why the losers lost,” says Gibson. “Would a professional football team that lost an important game fail to watch the game tapes afterward to analyze what happened? Of course not.

“Over time, a systematic debriefing process will help you see patterns – what you’re doing well and what you need to change,” says Gibson. “Practice makes you better. Practice with feedback makes you much better, much faster.”

The random win-rate for a law firm participating in a competition in response to a Request for Proposal, where 20 firms respond, is five per cent—one winner and 19 losers.

“With a few years of consistent effort involving feedback and other tactics,” says Gibson, “law firms can achieve a win-rate of 30/40 per cent. One firm I know well eventually reached – after seven years of effort – an 85 percent win-rate on responses to RFPs.”

“Most lawyers find it very difficult to ask for feedback about their performance in new-business competitions – especially if they lose,” says Gibson. “In fact, the vast majority of lawyers and law firms currently fail to take advantage of this highly effective business development tool.

“There is a way to make debriefing easier,” says Gibson. “When you first accept an invitation to compete for business, ask the potential client for permission to follow up – win or lose – once the process is over. Let them know that this would be very helpful to you. Then act on your request.”

Under most circumstances, the person who led the competition team should not be the person to do the actual debriefing. “The decision maker will want to be polite to the team leader,” says Gibson.

“Most times, prospects tell losing firms’ presentation team leaders something like ‘Oh, it was really, really, really, really close. It could have gone either way. We solved the problem by going with the lowest price,” says Gibson. “This will probably not be the whole truth or the most useful feedback.”

Use another partner, the marketing director or an outside consultant to collect this feedback. “Ask the same set of questions about those who won the work and those who did not,” says Gibson. “Questions should cover the written materials used, the team sent, the strategy proposed and the interview process itself.” The proposal team itself should also be debriefed as soon as possible after the interview.

Do not use the debriefing process as an opportunity to re-pitch your firm. Do ask why a winner won. If you are not the winner, ask how you can improve in order to achieve a better outcome next time.

“Surprisingly often, you will discover that the decision maker ignored much of the factual information you were asked to provide and voted with his or her ‘gut feeling’ that one competitor was the best choice,” says Gibson. “This phenomenon becomes more and more common with the increased value, risk and exposure of a potential engagement.”

By employing some or all of the techniques mentioned above, you and your firm can get a leg up on the competition when it comes to responding to RFPs and competing for new business.

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer/ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers and other professional service providers – helping them to position themselves as thought-leaders within their target markets through publication of informative articles, books and content for the Internet. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or